Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Star Wars: A Long Time Ago...


Archie Goodwin, Carmine Infantino & many, many others
Star Wars: A Long Time Ago...
Doomworld (1978)
Dark Encounters (1980)
Resurrection of Evil (1981)

This time it was J.G. Ballard boring me shitless, in combination with which a load of personal aggravations - significantly one of the cats breaking her leg - conspired to reduce my attention span as applied to literature which is probably important and good for you but isn't much fun to actually read; and these three collections were just sat there promising comforting retreat into a less troublesome past, so...

I was twelve when Star Wars came out, and naturally I was excited about the whole thing before I'd even seen it. I'd read the two giant-sized Marvel specials - weird collectors editions the size of tabloid newspapers - and I'd read that first issue of Starburst, and a couple of those other tie-in making of magazines they just couldn't get into the newsagents fast enough. I was excited because this was a film which looked like real life rather than special effects, even Gerry Anderson special effects. The robots seemed like real robots, as did the spacecraft; and I know we had 2001: A Space Odyssey, but no-one ever really understood what the hell happened in that film, and the adventures of Luke Skywalker promised to be significantly more exciting. Star Wars didn't disappoint when it arrived, although on close inspection I realised it somehow lacked the bite of the strips I'd begun to follow in 2000AD comic; and neither did the action figures disappoint, nor Star Wars Weekly which reprinted the two collectors editions and then went off somewhere else altogether, following its own trajectory.




These three volumes collect the first fifty or so issues of the American comic, as reprinted in shorter weekly helpings in the English version. Star Wars Weekly was never anything like so essential as 2000AD for me as a kid, although some of the back up strips came fairly close - Warlock, Guardians of the GalaxyMicronauts and so on. The main feature seemed variable, and suffered from each episode having been broken down into awkward lengths for the sake of a weekly schedule, but it still had its moments, or so I recall, although nostalgia has bitten me in the ass before...

A New Hope as it has since become known, adapted by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin - apparently drawn using a nail on a sheet of hardboard - is pleasant enough, and interesting for its featuring the first version of Jabba the Hut as played by Graeme Garden of The Goodies. With the adaptation out of the way, the story takes a brief detour through a slightly shite but hugely enjoyable Han Solo version of The Magnificent Seven, before really getting into gear with Archie Goodwin and Carmine Infantino at the controls. But for a few digressions and fill-in issues, the first two volumes of these collections more or less represent a continuing story, one which deftly avoided doing too much which could be contradicted when The Empire Strikes Back came out. The story is nicely paced, laying down intriguing plot points far in advance of their being required to explain anything, and delivering regular big ideas sufficient to keep it interesting. Of course, one problem with the comic is that it tends to expose Star Wars lack of any actual characters, or at least no-one deeper than they killed his mum and dad and now he wants revenge, or the rough and ready outlaw with a heart of gold and the like. This isn't really a problem in the film, at least not in the first one, given that scale and spectacle were the main point; and it did both pretty well, so all you really needed from anyone was at the level of the lowly farm boy who had a date with destiny. Whilst the comic strip could never really hope to achieve the scale of the celluloid, it had the next best thing in the form of Carmine Infantino's weird angular style, a sort of Vorticist translation of traditional Japanese art. Doomworld - set around a city-sized sailing ship rigged together from the trunks of underwater trees on a planet without dry land - impressed the shit out of me when I was a kid, and amazingly it has stood the test of time, albeit as something patently angled towards younger teenagers; and subsequent episodes of Luke and pals battling representatives of the House of Tagge actually work better than I remember them doing, possibly benefiting from being read over a few more concentrated sittings. Inevitably there's a degree of clunk and cliché because it's Star Wars, but I swear Carmine Infantino's art could be some of the most beautiful stuff Marvel have ever published, regardless of yer Kirbys and yer Ditkos, so it seems churlish to roll one's eyes at yet another creaking instance of C3PO testily pointing out that R2D2 has just made him look a right cunt.

Sadly it wasn't to last. Al Williamson's art on the adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back is beautiful but, as with the film, the fucking thing doesn't actually have a story.

Luke is over here, then he's over there.

Let's hope he doesn't run into Darth Vader.

Oh shit - look what they did to Han Solo.

The End.


Even as an easily satisfied teenager I thought it was bollocks and stopped buying the comic, which seems to have been the right choice going by the remainder of the third volume. Having adapted Empire, it's as though the story fell and hit its head and was never quite the same again. Carmine Infantino's beautiful art gets buried beneath the linework of a roster of lesser talents, Archie Goodwin drops in and out of the mix, and we get a succession of shorter, less ambitious adventures, essentially filler material. Luke and Leia guest in a dinosaur-infested Doug McClure vehicle, or a story from the 1974 Star Trek annual, or Larry Hama's impressively dire The Third Law in which her nibs goes to the banking planet to take out a loan so the rebels can buy more X-Wing fighters; and oh what a coincidence, Darth Vader just happens to be there as well, making a loud farting noise as Leia meets with the chancellor, waving a hand in front of his face and commenting, 'I would say there was a Brussels sprout on the end of that one, your royal highness.'

That doesn't happen, but it comes close in places. The Third Law isn't actually a Davy Jones strip from Viz, but it could have been.

Never mind. Nothing lasts forever, and the point to remember is just how good the first two volumes are. Apparently they're not considered Star Wars canon, but really - who gives a shit? I'd still take Doomworld over almost anything which has appeared on the big screen since the first one.



Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Head of State


Andrew Hickey Head of State (2015)
Full disclaimer: I painted the cover. I sort of know the author, and in fact he asked me if I wanted to read an earlier draft of this novel prior to publication - which I declined as I dislike reading off a screen and wanted to wait for the finished thing; and I get massive shout outs and nuff respeck on the closing page. My impartiality may therefore be somewhat open to question blah blah blah...

Fuck it. This is a great book, and I'm pretty sure that has nothing to do with any of the above any more than it derives from the stark contrast of my having recently emerged from an agonising trawl through all four-billion chapters of Perdido Street Description - I mean Perdido Street Station.

Actually, to be honest, I passed on the offer of getting to read the earlier draft because I was a little worried that I wouldn't enjoy it and would thus find myself in the awkward position of disliking the work of someone I generally admire, and the entire internet would become an expanded version of Father Ted's increasingly uncomfortable encounters with novelist Polly Clarke, author of Bejewelled with Kisses. Andrew had sent me a few excerpts in the vague hope of providing some inspiration for the cover image, or maybe just for the sake of feedback, and I noticed the entire thing appeared to be written as a series of first person accounts, and that one of those accounts took the form of the self-conscious blog entries of a young journalist, somewhat irritating self-conscious blog entries to my mind. It all seemed so heavy-handed that I really wasn't sure there was any advice I could give, for the same reason that I'm not sure I could really give any useful advice to China Miéville aside from write a better book. On the other hand, despite these misgivings, I've read Andrew's fiction before, and also his non-fiction which itself demonstrates a profound understanding of how fiction works, and his track record has been pretty fucking great, so I assumed and hoped it would all work out in the end with further rewrites, which it did and with knobs on.

I had a feeling that, regardless of the above, Head of State would have plenty going for it once polished up a bit, but I had no idea it would pupate into something quite so solid, quite so impressive as it has. Andrew wrestles prose with the skill of a master of many years standing, setting narratives against one another, lightly scenting passages with secondary and even tertiary levels of meaning, nesting stories within stories, even speaking directly to the reader without so much as a hint of either points or literary ability stretched beyond natural reach. It may help that behind all of the curtains, Head of State is a fairly simple story at least some of which is about the means by which that story is told, and the way in which the story is told actually constitutes a fairly essential plot detail. It's the kind of thing Grant Morrison has tried to do in comics on occasion, but here it works better, related with a somehow friendlier tone by an author who seems quite keen that the reader should understand what he is trying to say; and to further extend the analogy, of all the Faction Paradox novels published since This Town Will Never Let Us Go, in certain respects Head of State seems the thematically closest to the writing of Lawrence Miles, albeit a slightly happier Lawrence Miles who listens to the Beach Boys. I should probably stress at this point that Head of State doesn't read so much inspired by as in sympathy with. It's very much Hickey's own thing, and does much which eludes other writers, not least being that Rachel Edwards' somewhat irritating self-conscious blog entries are actually supposed to be irritating and self-conscious and as such work perfectly within the context of the whole. Similarly impressive is our token conspiracy driven right-wing gun nut written as a rounded, believable, even sympathetic character rather than a check-list of hate-filled clichés driving around in an El Camino with Kiss on the tape deck. Andrew's powers of characterisation are such that even the most unpleasant characters speak to us on some level without need of the whining qualification of oh he's only racist because when he was just a kid... which is entirely consistent with what I understand to be Andrew's generally humanist view that the great majority of people are essentially decent in some respect, regardless of evidence to the contrary; and whilst we're here, his clear and erudite understanding of the American political landscape makes a refreshing change from the usual sub-Frank Miller bollocks.

Looking at the individual pieces, this is an incredibly ambitious novel, not least in terms of how it is written, and there's an awful lot which could have gone horribly wrong, but it's the tidiest piece of work I've read in some time.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Perdido Street Station


China Miéville Perdido Street Station (2000)
I'd heard good things about China Miéville, and it seemed like time to give him a shot, encouraged somewhat by those less favourable online reviews promising an author who liked to show off with all those big, fancy words what you can't understand and you have to like look them up in a dictionary because he thinks he's all lush and that with his long words but he don't know nuffink; and so on and so forth - such thickie-alienating criticism usually being indicative of somebody getting something right.

Perdido Street Station begins well with vivid and engrossing descriptions of the world it inhabits, a world Warren James describes - in the selection of quotations from reviews serving for preface - as a cross between Blade Runner and the London of Charles Dickens, which I only mention because I'm astonished that someone may actually have been paid to write such a sentence. Along similar lines I've also noticed Perdido Street Station cropping up in steampunk lists, because apparently anything not actually featuring the Starship Enterprise or lasers is now steampunk, thus increasing the aggregate quota of cultural reference points for anyone wishing to saddle up their velocipede and join in the blinking steampunk fun, what?

Huzzah!

Thankfully Perdido Street Station is none of the above. Rather it inhabits its own world, as much fantasy as science-fiction and populated by all manner of vaguely-but-not-quite-familiar biological oddities, the most extreme of which would be the scarab headed khepri, the females of which have a human body with a scarab head - not a beetle's head you understand, but an entire beetle complete with legs and wings as a head. Elsewhere, the laws of physics aren't quite the same as anything with which we are familiar, with mysterious forces adhering to a logic which seems to be of dreamlike or even overtly Surrealist intent; and it's all kind of disgusting with orifices dripping vaguely sexual effluvia onto mildewed Victorian brickwork left, right, centre, up, down, inside, and out. My Warren James description would be a Human Centipede version of Terry Pratchett but without the jokes.

As I say, Perdido Street Station begins well, but I was bored shitless by about page two-hundred - a third of the way in. The imagery is astonishing, but begins to get in the way of the book fairly quickly, and eventually the whole sags beneath the weight of description. Someone steps outside to scrape some poo off their boot and we're off again - another five fucking pages accounting for the life cycle of whatever produced the poo seemingly just for the sake of waving yet another fistful of suppurating tentacles in the readers' face. It may not be showing off, as claimed by some who probably shouldn't bother with books in the first place, and as for Miéville allegedly having a thesaurus stuck up his bottom, I didn't personally notice any unfamiliar words; but it does become a little boring after a while, as the narrative continually fails to get around to its own point, whatever that may be. I suspect there probably is a point, maybe something along the lines of Crime and Punishment with a higher quotient of dockyard oysters, but I stopped caring after a while. Chapter Thirty-Nine, for example, reveals certain characters to be under the influence of handlingers, which seem to be parasitic worms, each with a human hand for a head, specifically a human hand clasped around the neck of its host. Their introduction doesn't really serve to explain anything requiring explanation, and doesn't seem to do anything beyond adding further gratuitously sticky texture. Then four-million pages later we discover that the guy who had his wings cut off, the one who provides much of the forward motion for the rest of the cast, is a rapist and therefore a bad lad so we don't want to help the fucker after all, and that's the end of that. Maybe it's a subversion of the typical quest narrative and by association reader expectations, but by that point I'd ceased to care about any of it.

In terms of invention, style, and poetry, this is a great book, but it has no sense of humour, and doesn't actually appear to do anything besides stand in the corner trying hard to look interesting whilst outstaying its welcome by several weeks. Apparently he's written better, but after this, my curiosity is not what it could be.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Animal Man: Animal vs. Man / Rotworld - the Red Kingdom


Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder, Steve Pugh, Travel Foreman etc.
Animal Man: Animal vs. Man (2012)
Animal Man: Rotworld - the Red Kingdom (2013)

China Miéville's Perdido Street Station opens wonderfully and is beautifully written, but by page two-hundred I was bored shitless and sorely in need of something a little more immediate and enjoyable by way of a palate cleanser before committing to the remaining forty-fucking-million chapters. Further instalments of the revived Animal Man comic seemed to fit the bill, not least because of my having two whole unread volumes in which to immerse myself. Interestingly enough, the thematic shift is probably not that pronounced, given the emphasis on biological horror in Perdido Street Station.

Anyway, the continuation of the story which began with The Hunt holds up generally well, and is at least as good as anything from the Vertigo incarnation of the title, regarding which, it was nice to note the narrative assimilation of the Grant Morrison iteration, and even those yellow extraterrestrials from which our hero derived his amazing animal powers back in a 1965 issue of Strange Adventures. Slightly stranger was finding Buddy Baker back in a version of the regular DC universe as populated by Superman, Batman, Beast Boy, and a bunch of other faintly ludicrous characters with whom I am only distantly familiar. I say a version of the DC universe, because this is the one in which most of the costumed types are dead and have been revived as zombie-like soldiers of the Rot, so it's obvious there's going to be one massive fuck-off sized reset button popping up at some point, which sort of diminishes the integrity of the whole for me, as does the sheer spectacle of all those zombie superheroes flying into battle - ludicrous and as such all well and good in Marshal Law, but it seems an uncomfortable fit here.

Well, Animal Man is still fairly enjoyable regardless, if occasionally reading like it can't really decide on whether it's a post-Vertigo comic book or a 1980s issue of Firestorm the Nuclear Man. The art is mostly spectacular, although Andrew Belanger seems a bit out of place with his cute manga faces and everything looking as though he hasn't quite got all of the Teen Titans Go! out of his system.

Oh well, back to boring China Miéville, I guess.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Zenith: Phase Three


Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell Zenith: Phase Three (1990)
Zenith was already the greatest thing ever, so it seemed to me back when I was reading it in weekly instalments in the pages of 2000AD comic, but Phase Three just took it to the next level so far as I was concerned; and yes I know I've just written took it to the next level, which is because Grant Morrison was for once clearly giving it 110%, thinking outside the box...

Fuck it. Look - this was just magnificent, okay? Lovecraft's squelchy horrors attempt to take over the universe by destroying free-will, and Zenith hangs around making snarky remarks as the day is saved by thinly disguised versions of Billy the Cat and Katie, Robot Archie, Billy Whizz, and other clunky stalwarts of British comic history; and that's all there is. It's hardly even a story, just a series of references and ludicrous characters done grimly realistic - which is itself ludicrous and therefore seemingly aware of its own inherent absurdity - and yet it's a thing of great beauty. Much of this is probably down to timing, knowing when to shut up, and knowing when Steve Yeowell's wonderful artwork - at this point both impressionist and bordering on photographic - is able to speak for itself, carrying even the most preposterous ideas with dignity far beyond their due. This is probably the greatest comic Grant Morrison ever wrote, and it illustrates very well how, when you hold it up to the light, you realise he really isn't anything like Alan Moore, despite all the guff which has been written on that subject between now and then, at least some of it by themselves.

For sake of contrast, just to demonstrate how horribly wrong it all could have gone, this volume also prints a bonus feature drawn by the consistently awful Jim McCarthy, doubtless a lovely bloke but nevertheless one who draws like it's the back of a school exercise book and the hard kid just ain't letting you go until you've copied out that Whitesnake album cover to the very best of your abilities.

Sorry, Jim. Take an art class maybe?

At the risk of appearing crude, any dicks need sucking for whoever helped bring this one back into print, just let me know.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Labyrinths


Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths (1964)
I was beginning to get the feeling that almost everything I've ever read might either be traced back to Borges or else somehow prefigure his writing, but I never actually located any of his writing in the usual book stores and, in any case, probably wasn't in a huge hurry to do so due to a niggling fear of finding myself way out of my depth. Almost everything I've ever read is admittedly something of an exaggeration here, when really I mean certain things I've read which have made a significant and particular kind of impression on me - Philip K. Dick and certain looser strains of science-fiction, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and a few other comic strip authors. Borges seems either an originator or an otherwise significant name in the history of books within books, seemingly self-aware narratives reflecting  the readers' existence as potentially no less a fiction than that which appears on the page. His central point seems to be that reality is a function of language, or something of the sort, and he illustrates this over and over in a series of surprisingly succinct short stories and essays. Curiously, the dividing line between what constitutes fiction and what constitutes an essay in Borges' oeuvre is ambiguous as he tends to employ each form towards similar ends, whether it's an analysis of Cervantes' Don Quixote, or the fiction of the writer who strives to rewrite the same.

He did not want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

Peculiarly, there are points at which Borges reminds me of Woody Allen, specifically the absurdity of Without Feathers.

Do I believe in God? I did until Mother's accident. She fell on some meat loaf, and it penetrated her spleen. She lay in a coma for months, unable to do anything but sing  "Granada" to an imaginary herring.

Compare, for example, the tone of the above with that of Borges' The Library of Babel:

The mystics claim that their ecstacy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.

This actually reminded me of laughing until my sides hurt over an article in an old issue of Brian Moore's Head football fanzine presenting a fictitious history of the introduction of football to colonial Africa: our Livingstonian narrator arrives at the remote village and realises that the locals have failed to grasp the point of the game once he sees their circular pitch with its single set of goalposts erected at the centre. I'm not trying to denigrate Borges here so much as illustrate his finely-tuned sense of the absurd, albeit in an informally Surrealist or Symbolist context, and how this renders some seriously headachey philosophical points as entirely more readable than they probably have a right to be, even compellingly so.

Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1883, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.

Which would be more or less the same as the point at which Grant Morrison has Animal Man look out of the page at his reader and exclaim 'I can see you!', except Borges states his case in
clearer terms which are much more difficult to refute - I would argue - not least in the essay in which he more or less proves - at least in philosophical terms - that words constitute reality; unless I imagined that one.

There's much more in Labyrinths than I could hope to summarise, even had I understood all of it, so I'll close by stating that it has depths within depths and yet remains mostly as clear as an unmuddied lake. His reputation seems entirely warranted.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Nargun and the Stars


Patricia Wrightson The Nargun and the Stars (1970)
Back in the 1970s when I was a kid, Australia was England's closest neighbour - closer than France, closer than even Wales - and so I grew up enjoying the many benefits of Australian culture. I have a vague memory of some huge antipodean anniversarial celebration which would presumably account for that year when you couldn't turn the telly on without seeing either Dame Edna or Norman Gunston, and even the BBC's Jackanory - a fifteen minute daily broadcast of a book read by somebody vaguely famous - joined in with its recital of Patricia Wrightson's The Nargun and the Stars, an Australian children's classic. Weirdly I can find no reference to this hypothetical anniversary year through Google, so perhaps I imagined it and all that Australian culture was actually filtered across from the neighbouring farm, seeing as they had family somewhere down there. Frustratingly, internet memories of The Nargun and the Stars as featured on Jackanory are similarly scant beyond a handful of accounts in which people in their fifties recall it having scared the living shit out of them.

I can still see why, although I'm reading this as an adult. It's a children's book with the usual, logical concessions, placing its young protagonist at the centre of the action and not obliging him to think too hard about anything too utilitarian like how the hell his uncle manages to make a living out on that farm in the middle of the outback; but it's a children's book which nevertheless assumes its reader to be in possession of both a brain and an attention span longer than that of a kitten, so I didn't find it necessary to get in character by dressing up as a schoolboy or eating instant mashed potato drowned in ketchup or anything.

The Nargun and the Stars is experienced through the eyes of the recently orphaned Simon as he is shipped off to live with rural relatives and encounters a surreal panoply of native Australian elementals presumably from Aboriginal lore - tree spirits, the aquatic Potkoorok, and the terrifying Nargun of the title, essentially a living and very much disgruntled boulder. The Nargun has been, so it seems, displaced from its homeland by the march of progress, and now rolls around the hills of Wongadilla, crushing sheep and farm machinery in the dead of night.

Oddly, not very much actually happens in this novel. Events unfold at a leisurely rural pace with breaks for tea every five or so pages, and yet the low incident narrative never drags, being borne along by its wonderful attention to quiet detail - One of very few books that successfully depicts silence, as one Goodreads reviewer puts it. Truthfully, the book doesn't really need to jump through narrative hoops because atmosphere alone does most of the business. This seems to work well as a means of dealing with Simon having recently lost his parents without needing to spell anything out - a canny choice, I would argue, given that spelling things out to children regarding such a ruthlessly subjective experience as losing one's parents is probably asking for trouble, and a road ultimately leading to books with titles like My Dad, the Sex Criminal.

More interesting still is that our Nargun isn't really evil so much as simply misplaced, which in turn serves as a faint echo of the Nargun being only the latest intrusion on the landscape, the previous one having been made by Simon's new family on the realm of the Potkoorok and the rest. This could have resulted in sermonising but instead Wrightson takes a more philosophical tone on the subject of change, impermanence, and so on - all of which is of obvious relevance to Simon's unfortunate situation.

The Nargun and the Stars is a quietly intelligent children's book and as such richly deserves to be remembered as a first division classic alongside the works of Lewis Carroll, Tove Jansson, Roald Dahl and others.